How Loud is Too Loud?

DJ Scooby Doo, a member of the LockerGnome community, asked on “I’m always around loud noises. Is there a level where it’s too loud, and what level is it before I start to go deaf?”

This is a great question, and the answer can keep you from suffering long-term hearing loss. Listening to loud noises means driving stronger vibrations down your ear canal, which eventually could weaken those tiny moving parts, resulting in hearing loss. Sounds like a piece of computer hardware, right?

How Hearing Works

Your ear is actually a fairly complex piece of hardware. It contains three major sections including the outer, middle, and inner ear. Your eardrum protects your inner ear from the outside world, but it also acts a lot like a microphone’s diaphragm. Sound waves travel in your ear, captured by the cone-like shape of your outer ear, and press against your eardrum.

This pressure causes movement in three little bones located behind the eardrum that send signals to your inner ear which contains the cochlea. The cochlea is made up of small tubes filled with liquid, each containing tiny hairs that transmit directly to your brain. In a sense, there are a lot of tiny moving parts in your ears that can each be damaged through loud noises, vibration, and even infections.

What’s an Earache?
If you’ve ever had an inner ear infection, you’ve experienced the pain and hearing loss associated with flooding the inner ear with liquid. This flooding muffles and can even mute the signals your ear drum would transfer to those three little bones, which can be a real drag. I’ve had some bad earaches in my time, two of which resulted in my eardrum bursting. A tiny hole in the eardrum may develop (or need to be surgically created) in order to relieve pressure in the inner ear caused by excess fluid.

In the vast majority of cases, the ear heals up good as new in a matter of weeks. The ear doesn’t, however, heal quite as well in cases where loud noises cause damage to the ear’s tiny moving pieces.

What Causes Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss isn’t purely caused by the level of sound, but by a combination of time and volume. A rock concert might cause ringing in your ears that lasts for a day or two, but you generally recover from short-term bursts of loud noises relatively quickly. If you subject your ears to this type of music on a more constant basis, or more often, hearing loss can certainly result.

Think about your ear as a boxer. It’s being punched again and again as sound waves rush in. Louder noises mean more powerful sound waves. Where sitting next to a busy street might be akin to sparring with a puny teenager, going to a rock concert or wearing headphones at full volume is more like being in the ring with Mike Tyson. The boxer (your ear) may last a few rounds just fine, and even win the match. If it steps into the ring the next day, the day after, and the day after that, the chances of permanent damage occurring becomes far more likely.

In short, don’t put your ears in the ring with Mike Tyson more than you have to.

How Loud is Too Loud?

The general threshold of sound perception is about 10 dB, which is about 1/3 the ambient sounds of a cozy living room or closet. At 40 dB, you’re experiencing sound at about the level of a library or a quiet back yard at night.

When you start risking hearing loss, you’re hitting sound in the 90 dB range. This range can be generated by a lawn mower, screaming baby, or a nearby motorcycle. In this range, you’re risking hearing loss after about 8 hours of exposure in a given day. That may sound like a lot of exposure, but imagine being at a motorcycle rally or mowing lawn after lawn during a day’s work. It isn’t uncommon for people to wear earplugs during these activities for this very reason. A lawn mower may not damage your hearing after an hour, but doing it all day absolutely can.

Moving up into the 100 dB range, you’re looking at hearing loss after about two hours of exposure. This is a much lower amount of time, but your eardrums are also experiencing quite a bit more pressure as well. Situations where you might be exposed to this type of noise are commonly found in construction where jackhammers and other noisy equipment is being used in your area. It’s extremely common to see someone wearing full ear protection while operating this type of machinery for this very reason. At 100 dB, you’re hearing sounds that are twice as loud as you would at 90 dB.

At around 110 dB, you’re getting into the rock concert scenario we discussed before. Here, you can experience hearing damage after just three minutes. I remember being in school and watching an interview with Lars Ulrich of Metallica in which he explained that he suffered severe hearing loss after having toured without proper ear protection. Tinnitus is a very serious concern, and one that many people suffer through for their entire lives, my father included.

My father’s hearing issues came about because of his years spent on an aircraft carrier while in the Navy. He worked on the flight deck maintaining planes between missions. The sound of jets taking off from the carrier hits at around 130-140 dB, and even wearing protective headphones may not prevent damage entirely.

Hearing loss isn’t always the result of an instant punch of volume, but rather a consistent amount of noise over a period of time. Simply taking your headphones off for a few seconds doesn’t “reset the clock” and damage accumulates, so you may want to think long and hard about just how loud your music is playing.

You only have one pair of ears to last you throughout your entire life. Wrecking them early on is never a good thing.

Listening Ear by Vera Kratochvil

4 comments On How Loud is Too Loud?

  • As a radio personality, I tent to drive my cans up to the max! Especially when I’m playing a track I really dig! So, long-term hearing loss is something I have to keep in mind. That’s why I do a yearly check-up, to see (or better yet, hear) if my hearing is getting worse… 

  • Look after your hearing because once it starts to fail you can not get it back. I now where hearing aids.

  • Its worth pointing out the for every 3 db the volume increases the sound pressures double. So that jump from 8 hours at 90 db to 2 at 100 db makes more sense.

  • Very informative. Wow. I’ll think twice before blasting my headphones on the train from now on…

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